For some Alabama schools, it’s home before and after the holidays as COVID cases surge

Updated Dec 11, 2020; Posted Dec 10, 2020

Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey
Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey speaks to superintendents at meeting on Aug. 28, 2019, in Montgomery, Ala. Mackey has deferred to local school systems when it comes to making decisions on whether to host in-person school or remote education during the coronavirus pandemic.

By John Sharp |

Baldwin, Shelby, and Montgomery county schools are planning to delay in-person classroom learning by one week when the second semester begins next month.

But for Jefferson County, the schedule remains the same.

Other districts, such as Hoover and Tuscaloosa city schools, will return with staggered scheduling in which some students return to in-class instruction before others. Other school districts, such as Calhoun County Schools, will be going to a virtual-only schedule next week. And in Scottsboro — where a New York Times piece recently listed the Jackson County community as among the highest for week-to-week growth in coronavirus infections — the city school system is transitioning to virtual-only education starting Thursday at some schools and extending to others next week.

As COVID-19 continues to surge and break records in Alabama, it’s been an uneven approach statewide as to how schools are handling the completion of the fall semester and beginning of the spring semester following New Year’s Day.

But the hyper-localized approach over administering school schedules should not come as a surprise: For months, Alabama education leaders have deferred to local superintendents and school boards when making decisions about whether to have school in a traditional in-person classroom setting, whether to go remote, or to have a blended/hybrid approach.

“The decision to close a campus and/or change the instructional delivery method remains at the local level,” said Eric Mackey, the state superintendent. “We trust local school system leaders to make the best choice with the information available.”

For some school districts, that means waiting at least 10 days after New Year’s Day to bring students back together for in-classroom learning. The 10 days is the time frame given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in which someone with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms remains infectious with the virus.

“By returning students to campus on January 11, we have given more than 10 days from New Year’s Day and more than two weeks from Christmas,” Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler wrote in an email to parents on Monday. “We believe this is ample time to allow the virus to run its course through anyone who may get sick during the break.”

Said Lewis Brooks, superintendent in Shelby County: “We are concerned that positive cases will manifest before returning to school. By allowing additional time, we hope to reduce the chance of further spread.”

Indeed, the concerns from public health officials nationwide is how holiday gatherings will cause further explosions in coronavirus spread in early January. The CDC is advising anyone who goes against its advice to avoid travel during the winter holidays to get tested for COVID-19 twice before departing on their trips. Alabama has adding over 3,300 cases over a seven-day average, according to a New York Times database.

The surge, according to national health experts, is attributed to Thanksgiving week gatherings.

“The predictions of the increase in cases we would see after Thanksgiving appear to have been very accurate,” said Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director with the School Superintendents of Alabama. “As we look back at other holidays where people traditionally gather with family and friends, we have seen a similar increase in cases. Based upon this summer and fall, I would say we can expect the same thing after the Christmas holidays.”

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson
Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson (Anna Beahm |

Dr. Mark Wilson, health officer in Jefferson County, said he believes the “logic is good” for schools to halt in-person classroom learning for 10 days after New Year’s. The schools that are waiting until January 11, however, will require virtual instruction for the week between January 4-8.

Wilson said aside from traditional family gatherings, he’s concerned with holiday parties, including New Year’s Eve gatherings.

“I would say my biggest concern right now is, in addition to family gatherings at Christmas time, are the parties and other social gatherings that are occurring before Christmas and that might be occurring for New Year’s,” Wilson said. “I am very concerned that these could be a problem in putting us in a bad place when it is time to return to school in January.”

Jefferson County Schools, with an enrollment of over 36,000 students is the state’s second-biggest school system, will return to traditional classes on January 5. But, according to spokesman John Huddleston, the school will “closely monitor the data and continue our conversations with public health officials” on whether their plans need adjusting.

Rena Phillips, spokeswoman at Mobile County Public Schools – the state’s largest school system – said earlier this week, they were monitoring COVID-19 numbers and “will let our families know if anything changes” to the schedule.

The school system, the state’s largest, announced on Friday that it was also postponing in-person classroom sessions until January 11. Students will participate in remote-only instruction from January 4-8.

Superintendent Chresal D. Threadgill, in an email to families and employees, said that students will need to take their devices home once the holiday break begins on December 18.

Some schools are already preparing to go completely virtual before the current semester ends. The Tuscaloosa City School System is shifting to all-virtual education next week. The students who did not select a full-year virtual option will then return to school in January in a staggered schedule, using Green and Gray day designations from January 5-15. Students will then return to a four-day-a-week, in-person instruction on January 19.

Superintendents like Tyler in Baldwin County and Mike Daria at Tuscaloosa City Schools are aware that the changes are going to disrupt family and work schedules, and that’s why they feel moving ahead with the schedule changes in early December makes sense.

“I believe this decision allows us to plan and be more purposeful,” said Daria. “We are working as a team to find the best path to make sure our students are safe, and our staff are safe.”

Etowah County Schools, in an announcement Wednesday from Superintendent Alan Cosby, said it was moving toward a virtual-only option next week and that in-person classroom instruction would not resume until January 11.

Cosby, in a Facebook post, alluded to a rising number of COVID-19 infections and quarantines “as well as a staffing and substitute issues.”

Some schools are contemplating their move. Mike Howard, superintendent of St. Clair County Schools, said they have discussed the possibility of returning to a staggered/half capacity format that would allow for smaller groups gathered for in-person education.

“Of course, this is subject to change based upon any new information we receive over the holidays,” said Howard. “Our goal is to have students in school as much as possible and as safely as possible.”

Wilson, the Jefferson County health officer, said that some school systems are simply “doing better than others” regarding COVID-19 outbreaks. He said that the No. 1 reason for switches to virtual or a blended/hybrid approach is due to a large number of teachers and staff who are sickened leaving the school system with “simply not enough (employees) to keep going.”

“In some systems, there are a large number of parents who have pulled their kids out (and into virtual-only options),” said Wilson. “These are all factors, but they are all different for school systems and the different challenges they face.”

Howard said the rising cases and difficulties with scheduling boils down to the recent rise in infections.

“We have asked that the residents of St. Clair County to please wear masks, social distances, and refrain from gathering in groups as much as possible,” he said. “Although we cannot control what people do outside of school, the schools are forced to react. We need everyone’s help in keeping our schools open.”